Photos courtesy of Tara T. Green
This Juneteenth, pick up the biography on Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a pioneering Black activist who helped shape Black life in Wilmington.
Love, Activism, and the Respectable Life of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (2022) by Tara T. Green, Ph.D. is the only existing biography of the pioneering Black activist, writer, suffragist and educator who spent three decades helping to shape Black life and politics in Wilmington and beyond.
About a decade ago, Green visited the University of Delaware library to research Dunbar-Nelson. “I thought I’d get a few boxes,” Green remembers. But the librarian ultimately brought her 120 volumes of archival content. “She looked at me and said, ‘What do you plan on doing with this?’” Green recalls. “I told her, ‘I don’t know,’ but in my head I heard a voice saying, ‘This is going to be a biography.’”
Some content she’d never seen, but there was also plenty about the woman in her head and heart already. Green speaks of Nelson with amusement and respect equally. She recounts anecdotes of Dunbar-Nelson’s life and legacy, the stories imbued with a sparkle-eyed aliveness, like she’s been there all along with her subject, beginning with her birth in 1875 in New Orleans.
The South is where their connective tissue starts: Green and Dunbar-Nelson share an alma mater, an avocation and a birthplace. “I like to say I met her as a sophomore English major at Dillard University, where she also attended,” Green says. “She was also from the city I had grown up outside of. She was someone who provided a connection with an era that I wasn’t familiar with, to a city that I could come to know through her eyes and perspective.”
Dunbar-Nelson connects with people across spectrums and borders, Green says. She is celebrated for her poetry and short fiction; for her influential work as an early Black journalist; for her fights for racial equality and for suffrage; and for her calls for political and educational reform. She’s also included in the canon of studies of LGBTQ writers.
But for Delawareans, her legacy is in nearly 20 years of visionary Black education as a beloved teacher at Howard High School, from about 1902 to 1920. “Howard was such an important school because it gave Black people access to education,” Green explains. “Alice was… instrumental in its growth.” Green notes that Dunbar-Nelson was also a teacher at DSU’s predecessor, the State College for Colored Students.
Also living in the civic heartbeat of Black Wilmington, the teacher-activist co-founded the city’s chapter of the NAACP, which is still active, Green says. “She shows up in the early 1900s and doesn’t leave until the 1930s—that’s a long time for a person to be somewhere.… Her imprint is everywhere, even if people don’t know her name. My hope is that will change and her story gets told.”